Mylar Balloons on Horse Island

Incidental objects at the Peabody Museum’s outpost

Claire Hungerford

last fall, on a day trip to Horse Island, the largest of the Thimble Islands off the coast of Connecticut, I learned about the dozens of mylar balloons that arrive every week on its shoreline. Driven by some combination of fate, chance, and the oceanography of the Long Island Sound, these balloons follow a path from Long Island to an island that happens to be owned by the Yale Peabody Museum, which maintains it as an ecological laboratory near its Coastal Field Station. The exceptional nonbiodegradability of the mylar could make the balloons fit residents for an archive, but the museum throws them away, along with all the other trash that accumulates on the island’s shores. I thought about the balloons for months, contemplating the global forces of climate and capital that deliver them to the island and their relationship (or lack thereof) to the island and the institution that stewards it.

As an artist interested in the ecology of circulation and as a student in the Yale School of Art, I wanted a reason to stay on Horse Island, and I knew that it is hard to gain access to it, even for students at Yale. I proposed to research the balloons as an artist-in-residence performing daily sweeps of the perimeter, document­ing their arrival, and building an ad hoc collection. The balloons arrived daily, with traces of helium still in their chambers, invok­ing already-past celebrations or condolences. Often the heat from the sun had reinflated the balloons on the way, and they arrived tarnished and dulled but somehow bursting with ominous new life. On my third day, a gray cabinet door arrived with the tide; it became an impromptu backdrop for my photographs of the bal­loons. I experimented with using it as a framing device in the hope of inscribing the images with an improvised archival logic: by sit­uating the balloons closer to the context in which they were found, I mirrored the Peabody’s own practice of photographing artifacts together with the placards of text that identify them.

An object ends up at the Peabody usually as a donation or a purchase, but some objects are there because they have managed to hitch a ride with a “primary” object, and the museum is left with no choice but to keep them. There is no formal accessioning pro­cess for this informal category, which includes collections of glass jars, wooden cigar boxes, and other incidental artifacts that were used as vehicles to transport the primary artifacts—dinosaur bones, fossilized plants—to the museum. These objects make up a signif­icant portion of the Peabody’s collection; they elude quantification or classification, but sometimes they are valuable in their own right. Take, for example, the museum’s collection of 131-year-old prai­rie grass that once grew in the vicinity of Lance Creek, Wyoming, that had been used to pad some shipping crates of hadrosaur fos­sils. When the grass went extinct, the Peabody was the only place known to have archived it.

The balloons did not arrive in the museum with other objects, but they did arrive at one of the museum’s holdings in a similarly incidental way. The balloons briefly exist as cultural objects at birthdays and funerals; as nonbiodegradable trash they will persist much longer. I can imagine a more hopeful future in which they aren’t even produced, let alone pile up on shorelines. In our ongo­ing climate crisis, they strike me as a potentially important marker within an archive.

Over time Horse Island will disappear, not grow. The islands that make up the Thimble Island archipelago are slowly being sub­merged in the rising ocean waters. But for now, the islands—which number between 100 and 365 (depending on where one draws the line between an “island” and a “rock”)—are home to a wealthy and exclusive seasonal community. Of the inhabited islands, some con­tain only a single private Victorian or Tudor mansion. It’s a surreal scene that somehow conjures both the past and the future. On the ferry ride back from the island, I couldn’t decide whether I was looking at castles surrounded by moats or a once-gated community of mansions in a flood zone. Unsurprisingly, many have gone on the market recently.

I had planned to submit the balloon archive to the Peabody for inclusion in its collections. That process proved more complicated than I expected, though, and the fate of the balloons is up in the air. Of course, the museum does not knowingly acquire incidental objects. The museum will, however, accept a donation of an “art­work.” Art is sometimes born from the decision that an item of trash is not trash at all—like an incidental object in the Peabody’s collections, it exists stubbornly and persistently. It demands to be considered and to be held on to. The photographs that follow are records of this encounter between object and place. For now, the balloons are currently held in the intertidal zone known as the trunk of my car.

All photographs courtesy the artist.
Claire Hungerford is a designer and writer based in New Haven, CT. She is currently pursuing her MFA at the Yale School of Art.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


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